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[BOOK EXTRACT] Turning and turning

As an analyst and governance specialist at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) for twelve years, Judith February has had a unique perch. 'Turning and turning' is a snapshot of her Idasa years and the issues tackled, which included work on the arms deal and its corrosive impact on democratic institutions, Idasa’s party-funding campaign, which February helped lead, as well as work on accountability and transparency.

Of protest, burning and public discourse

Protests are not a new phenomenon by any means – they were a big element of resistance to apartheid on the part of black people, and one of South Africa’s deepest memories remains the youth uprising of 16 June 1976, when protesters came under lethal fire.

In 2009 when the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs published an extensive study of the state of local government. It painted a dismal picture of frayed institutional capacity that was struggling to meet its constitutional mandate. Outright corruption – cronyism, nepotism, the irregular awarding of contracts – played a large role in this, exacerbating the existing shortages of skills and resources.

Concerns about the state of corruption (and general municipal financial management) have featured strongly in reports of the auditor-general.. In late May, the auditor-general, Kimi Makwetu, released the 2016/2017 audit results for local government. They made for dismal but not unsurprising reading. During this time, Makwetu’s office audited 257 municipalities. Only 33 municipalities received clean audits and the degree of corruption and maladministration had worsened steadily.

The findings should have shaken government out of its complacency. It told a tale of poor management of resources, which is as inexcusable as it is unforgivable. The report on local government then identified the symptoms and root causes and part of the government’s ‘turn-around strategy’ was premised on working with municipalities and provinces to create greater accountability within local government.

Of course, the greatest plans can be wrought but, as the report itself acknowledged, much of the success of local government begins and ends with political leadership. What is happening at local government level is largely a replication of the ANC’s own dysfunction.

Ebrahim Fakir, now with the Wits School of Governance, argued in the 2014 Ruth First Memorial Lecture that protest politics in post-apartheid South Africa are a symptom of a poorly functioning democracy. He said it emerged in earnest after the 1999 elections when poor communities began to register dissatisfaction with their marginalisation. The issues concerned, inter alia, access to services, water and electricity privatisation and housing evictions. Initially without much structure or particular ideology, they quickly acquired both. The research was based on in-depth investigation in Bekkersdal in the Westonaria area of Gauteng, which has seen ongoing protests since 2005. Poverty and deprivation are ever-present, while the state has been used as a vehicle for enrichment. But the protests do not seem to be aimed at overthrowing the state, or even removing the ANC. Rather, Fakir suggests,‘if anything, the protests are a demand for a better quality democracy with more robust representation and responsiveness, as well as ethical government’.

Rage can only ever be a temporary solution. As we have seen in Tshwane and through the tragic death of Ernesto Nhamuave, the 35-year-old Mozambican who was burnt alive during xenophobic violence on the East Rand in May 2008, burning destroys but does not solve. On the Easter weekend in 2018, violent protests broke out at Mooi River, the busiest toll road plaza in South Africa. It is unclear what the reasons for the protests were save that ‘foreign truck drivers’ were accused of taking local jobs and ‘stealing our women’.

As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for xenophobic violence are complex. Rising levels of inequality and high youth unemployment, in particular, create an environment ripe for blaming ‘the other’, while competing for scarce resources. We also know only too well that violence has always been a part of the South African landscape: physical violence and the violence of language and name-calling. In countless pieces of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again: ‘They only come when we start to burn things.’ They refers to the media and the politicians who have the power to change things, yet often are unwilling or unable to listen.

In 2015, another wave of xenophobic violence swept South Africa, leaving a trail of tears and bodies. The streets of Durban and surrounding townships seethed with anger and violence as foreigners and locals battled it out. Why, one wondered. Turf, economic opportunity, and a sense of belonging? Government finally stepped in to prevent a bloodbath in Durban yet it had until then been largely reactive.

King Goodwill Zwelithini was quoted as saying all foreigners should return to the places they came from. Government refused to speak out against these blatantly provocative comments and the king himself blamed the media for misinterpreting what he said. Although the king seems to have carte blanche in what he says and what he demands from the fiscus, the problem could not be blamed on him alone. Xenophobic comments were also made by Lindiwe Zulu, minister of Small Business. She was memorably recorded lecturing foreign nationals on the conditions for their stay in South Africa: ‘Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost.’

No wonder then that poor, unemployed locals have deemed it fit to vent their anger at foreigners. Rhetoric matters, as government is always so slow to figure out.

Clearly, former Police Minister Nathi Nhleko believed it was all about semantics: this is ‘Afro-phobia’ not xenophobia, he said in the wake of the violence. According to Nhleko, this categorisation would assist us in dealing more appropriately with the problems at hand. It was naive given the fact that xenophobic sentiment runs deep in South Africa, partly another fallout of parochial apartheid years and the fear of ‘the other’.

Disappointingly, as we have seen, the #FeesMustFall protests also succumbed to violence within its ranks. Universities have to retain the right to free expression or they risk losing their raison d’être as places of learning and tolerance.

Ingrid de Kok’s searing poem Today I do not love my country, written during the xenophobic violence of May 2008, captures some of this disappointment and pain.

Today I do not love my country
South Africa, May 2008

Today I do not love my country.
It is venal, it is cruel.
Lies are open sewers in the street.
Threats scarify the walls.

Tomorrow I may defend my land
when others X-ray the evidence:
feral shadows, short sharp knives.
I may argue our grievous inheritance.

On Wednesday I may let the winded stars
fall into my lap, breathe air’s golden ghee,
smell the sea’s salt cellar, run my fingers
along the downy arm of the morning.

I may on Thursday read of a hurt child given refuge and
tended by neighbours, sing with others the famous forgiving
man
who has forgotten who were enemies, who friends.

But today, today, I cannot love my country. It staggers in the
dark, lurches in a ditch. A curdled mob drives people into
pens, brands them like cattle,
only holds a stranger’s hand to press it into fire,
strings firecrackers through a child, burns stores and
shacks, burns.

Surely there is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we ‘do politics’ in South Africa if burning is seen as the only language through which people can be heard?

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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